John Neumeier isn’t a man of small ambitions. A prolific choreographer, he has tackled serious, difficult subjects with the Hamburg Ballet, from entire symphonies (in Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, for instance) to Shakespeare plays. With Parzival – Episodes and Echo, premiered in 2006, he goes even further into uncharted ballet territory. Who else would have taken as inspiration Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s fragmented 12th-century epics? But while his two-part version of the tale, shown in Paris for the first time last week, is a welcome alternative to cautious new versions of The Nutcracker, it also takes its highbrow stance a step too far.
Set to a starkly atmospheric taped score, in which John Adams features heavily alongside Wagner and Arvo Pärt, the Episodes of the first part go by in a haze, like a series of highly symbolic dreams. Almost every element of the production has been meticulously designed by Neumeier himself, and the overall aesthetic experience is clearly the raison d’être of the whole ballet, with many intensely beautiful moments. Dance, however, is the poor relation in Neumeier’s contemplative tableaux: from his trademark convoluted lifts to the Hermit’s religious gestures, every shape is sharply etched yet innately static, weighed down by the heavy spiritual subtext of Parzival’s story of initiation. Caffeine is mandatory if one is to appreciate the very slow second part, Echo, in which the hero discovers the beauty of silence and self-sacrifice. At two hours and 40 minutes, it is a stern evening of theatre, as humourless as ballet can get.
Neumeier still provides the company with a range of fascinating characters to portray, and the soloists serve his vision selflessly. Ukraine-born Edvin Revazov, who created the role of Parzival while still in the corps de ballet, is perfect as the young and naive knight blinded by his single-minded quest. Tall and blond, he looks like a boy who has grown up too fast next to the three women in his life: his mother, a true mater dolorosa played by the lithe, expressive Joëlle Boulogne, the Woman-Who-Never-Laughs (Anna Laudere, beautifully enigmatic), and Orgeluse, his last love interest. The original tale, however, is essentially masculine, and from the three knights to Carsten Jung’s intense Fisher King, the rest of the cast brought resonance to every symbol.
In the end, some of the most lasting images are provided by the exceptionally elegant Hamburg dancers. No other ballet company today has been working under a single choreographer for more than 35 years – Neumeier has had the unique opportunity to tailor an entire troupe to his style, and it shows on stage. In the sleek neoclassical choreography for the birds haunting the hero, Neumeier hints at the grand architectural scale he was looking for with this meditative Parzival. ()